“Jails, institutions and death — that’s the three ways to go.”
The refrain is drilled into every addict who signs up for a 12-step program.
“I’d been to jail and institutions, so death was the only thing left,” Stacy West said.
Death ended Amy Dean’s struggle with heroin. She died of an overdose at the age of 32 on June 15, 2012 while living with her boyfriend in High Point.
“I mourn the daughter I had before she was ever prescribed that medication,” Deborah Dean said. “I don’t mourn the addict. She had lost the ability to make normal, rational decisions.
“This is a disease,” she added. “This was my child who was stealing my medications and pawning my possessions. They’re hard to accept and forgive an addict, but an addict will do anything to provide the fuel to continue that addiction.”
Looking back today, Misty Sanders and Stacy West can easily imagine being Amy Dean. They both believe they had to hit the proverbial rock bottom before they could quit their habit for good.
“I lost everything: my children, my home, my family,” Sanders said. “That was when I realized I had a serious problem, and if I didn’t step up I was going to die.”
West said, “I keep telling myself if I use heroin again I’m going to die so that I’ll be scared to touch it again. It’s easy for me to go back there and use it. I choose not to.”
But sometimes recovery is not about reaching a bottom, said Louise Vincent, who has experienced at least a few.
“It’s about finding passion, and finding something to live for,” she said. “When I found things l loved to do and found an enjoyment of life, I found that sitting in the bathroom getting high was getting in the way. Drugs got in the way of my dream.”
Stacy West checked herself into High Point Regional Hospital for her third attempt at detox. After she completed the five-day program, her father picked her up and paid for her to stay at a motel in Thomasville. The next day, she began to experience withdrawal again. Feeling as if she might die, she called her father and begged him to take her back to the hospital.
Meanwhile, West’s husband had undergone residential treatment at ARCA. West stayed at the motel for two weeks, but when her husband got out of treatment, their only housing option was a homeless shelter in Lexington. They had to submit to drug testing and Breathalyzers to stay.
Then her husband relapsed and they were kicked out of the shelter.
“We moved in with his brother,” West recalled. “I started seeing all the signs. He’d come home from work with no money. I’d ask him where the money was, and he would lie to me. I suggested that we go stay with my parents. I told him I was packing our bags. I lied to him. I only packed my own bags, and I left without him. And then I called him from their house. I said, ‘Scott, I can’t do this anymore.’”
Officer Derrick McNeal, with the High Point Police Department, had known Misty Sanders since her days of abusing pills. When McNeil encountered Sanders one day in the spring of 2013, he shook his head as he took note of the track marks on her arms.
“You’re better than that,” McNeal told Sanders. “This is not you. This doesn’t have to be the end of the road for you.”
The encouraging words gave Sanders hope.
“Every run-in I’ve ever had with [High Point police officers], they never treated me like a junkie,” she said. “There’s several officers who go above and beyond. Even though I ended up with charges, I was treated like a human being, and that made a difference.”
She used her last $48 bag of heroin, and the next morning she quit for good.
Sanders spent nine days away from High Point “sick as a dog,” as she put it. Then her aunt took her to the detox facility at High Point Regional Hospital. By the time she completed the detox program, she had been clean for two weeks.
“I ended up having to go to jail because I had a warrant issued for my arrest,” Sanders said. “I think that probably saved my life. By the time I got out of jail, I had a month clean, and it was a lot easier from that point.”
Louise Vincent, for one, doesn’t like to be asked when she last used drugs.
“When I talk about recovery, I talk about making positive changes in my life for the past 10 years,” she said. “That doesn’t have anything to do with how many days, hours, years I haven’t put drugs in my body. It takes the emphasis off the idea that abstinence is the only acceptable path.
“I will say that I am taking care of my daughter,” she added. “I’m an active member of my family.”
She enjoys the respect of her colleagues at work, and gets a sense of gratification from her outreach with active heroin users.
Stacy West, now 31, has moved back in with her parents. In her two years of sobriety, she has obtained a CNA license and bought her father’s car, which advertises his Allstate insurance brokerage. She works full-time with dementia patients as a private-care nurse, and is on call at a nursing home.
“I discovered something that I love is taking care of people,” she said. “I work two jobs, always on the go. That’s what I need to do, is keep busy.”
Her husband is more or less out of the picture, and West filed for divorce a couple weeks ago. They have no possessions to argue over, except maybe some furniture her parents have been keeping in storage.
Misty Sanders, also 31, recently left the Triad, so she could move in with her new boyfriend. They live in western North Carolina in a town she would prefer not to disclose. Her criminal record has so far prevented her from obtaining employment.
She looks back on the pain medication prescription that set her on the road to heroin addiction as entirely unnecessary.
“I don’t think I should have went on long-term pain management,” she said. “I’m not on any drugs or prescriptions now. I still have four slipped discs. I’m better now than when I first went on medication.”
Sanders hasn’t seen her three children in two years, but a legal case with their father is nearing its conclusion, and she expects to be reunited with them eventually.
Patience is Sanders’ posture.
“I didn’t tear my life apart in one day,” she said, “and I’m not going to put it back together in one day.”
No one believes the tide will be turned against heroin any time soon.
“I don’t know whether it’s the wars we’re fighting or because we’re in Afghanistan,” Louise Vincent said. “I don’t pretend to know. There seems to be a lot of it. And it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. Opiates have boomed. I think the reason we hear so much about it is because the struggle is so great. Once you’re addicted, it is hell. You either keep using or you’re sick as f***.”